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The Cost of Multitasking: 6 Health Risks You Should Know

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Wet laundry that's been sitting in the washing machine for three days. A blog post riddled with spelling errors. An annoyed boss who is still waiting on the report that you were supposed to complete by day's end. What do all of these unfortunate scenarios have in common?
 
Each is the result of multitasking. Despite the common thinking that multitasking is the height of efficiency, it's being proven over and over again to be just the opposite—it's counterproductive.
 
Why is it, then, that we are enamored with the idea of being great multitaskers? We tout it as this special, essential skill, bragging to friends or family and even in job interviews about our full-time career as task jugglers. Why are we under the impression that it helps us get more done? That it is the only real way to handle the myriad of tasks being thrown our way?
 
Though it might seem like a national pastime, in practice, multitasking actually makes us less productive, increases our propensity to error, causes us to be more forgetful and makes us feel constantly rushed and stressed.
 
Brain research does not support the notion that multitasking is an asset. When looked at under the scan of an fMRI, researchers can see that, in essence, multitasking is asking the brain to split in half. The prefrontal cortex of our brain is responsible for analytical thinking, which we call on for decision making, problem solving and creativity. While the right and left sides of the prefrontal cortex work together when focused on a single task, each side works independently when people attempt to perform two tasks at once. In short, when you multitask, you are not benefitting from your brain's full potential.
 
More Tasks, More Health Problems?
 
Aside from inefficiency, multitasking can also be hazardous to your overall health for a variety of reasons. While completing as many errands, chores or assignments on top of one another might be tempting, keep in mind that as you push towards that empty to-do list, you could be sacrificing overall happiness and health goals. Of the dangers of multitasking, six stand out.
  1. Multitasking increases our stress levels. Know this: When demands exceed abilities, stress increases. Consistently trying to meet the requirements of several tasks at once increases our propensity towards error, causing efficiency to decrease. When those tasks are important, multitasking is especially stressful. The brain responds to impossible demands by pumping out adrenaline and other stress hormones. This approach to daily living leads to a constant sense of being rushed and overwhelmed, and a steady flow of stress hormones, which strains the body and threatens our mental and physical wellbeing.
  2. Multitasking can cause overeating and weight gain. When we eat in front of the television, talking on the phone, driving in the car, checking emails, or doing anything else that distracts us from the food in front of us, we are mindlessly eating. Studies have shown that mindless eating leads to consuming more calories than intended. We've all grabbed a bag of chips with the intention of eating a handful or two, only to reach the end of the half-hour show with an empty bag in hand. Not only does multitasking during meals distract you from noticing when you have had enough, but research also shows that when you do pay attention to your meal, you are more likely to eat less later.
  3. Multitasking takes time away from healthy pursuits. A 2001 study out of the University of Michigan showed that switching what you're doing mid-task increases the time it takes you to finish both tasks by 20 to 40 percent. That wasted time could be used to otherwise get in a workout, visit the grocery store to buy healthy food or even take time to relax, rest and rejuvenate.
  4. Multitasking could actually lead to injury or death. The U.S. Department of Transportation reports that in 2014, 3,179 people were killed and a whopping 431,000 injured in accidents caused by distracted driving. Pedestrian fatalities are also on the rise due to texting while crossing the street. Researchers from Australia and Spain found that when answering a text message or having a phone conversation that required a lot of attention, the distraction effect for participants was equal to the effects of having an illegal blood alcohol concentration in both countries (0.5 grams per liter). You wouldn't drink and drive, so why risk multitasking and driving?
  5. Multitasking is rewiring our brains, and not in a good way. Practicing mindful meditation increases the ability to focus and concentrate because it increases brain density and activity in the anterior cingulate cortex. As it turns out, multitasking has the opposite effect on this critical brain area. Researchers from the University of Sussex compared the amount of time people spend on multiple devices (such as texting while watching TV) to MRI scans of their brains. High multitaskers were found to have less brain density in the ACC, as if being busy all the time trains your brain to be mindless and unproductive. Multitasking also seems to interfere with short-term memory—it's hard to hold on to vital information if you are focusing on more than one thing at a time.
  6. Multitasking can decrease life-satisfaction, and increase chances of anxiety and depression. Constantly trying to handle more than one activity at a time distracts us from the pleasures of what we choose to spend our time doing. Nowhere is this truer than when you multitask relationships. If you are not fully engaged and paying attention to your children, spouse, friend, boss or any other important person when together, how can you truly nurture this relationship that should be bringing joy and meaning to your life? It's difficult to thrive when relationships are suffering and you are constantly feeling stressed and overwhelmed all the time.
 
Simplifying the To-Do List
 
If you've fallen into the habit of constant multitasking, there is no need to despair. Multitasking does not make you Superwomen. It is not an asset that helps you accomplish your dreams and goals, but rather an impediment that leaves you feeling exhausted and defeated. Begin retraining your brain to focus on one task, one project, one conversation at a time. Before long, you'll feel healthier, happier and on track to tackle any hurdle ahead—mindfully, of course.
  1. Start by prioritizing your work or home projects and set the intention of what you want to accomplish. Reduce or eliminate as many distractions as possible, set a timer and focus for a set amount of time on one task only.
  2. Plan in advance specific times to handle things that you would typically try to multitask. Allot specific times to check and return emails. Batch all your phone calls for a fixed period of the day. Handle all bill paying on the same day of the month.
  3. Exercise without your devices. If you use them them for tracking, shut off the incoming call, text or email alerts to avoid getting curious.
  4. When eating, pay attention, enjoy and savor your food. Aside from socializing with family and friends, eating should be the only thing you do at meal and snack time.
  5. Use an app such as LifeSaver (http://lifesaver-app.com/) to reduce texting while driving.
  6. Ignore the phone and turn off your text and email alerts while in conversation. Look your companion in the eye and truly listen.
  7. Take a walk without your phone. Embrace your surroundings, really focusing on the sights and sounds of the beauty around you.
Multitasking doesn't have to be a lifetime lifestyle. Making a few slight adjustments could mean the difference between stress and happiness. 
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Member Comments

Thanks for the information. Report
thank you Report
HOTPINKCAMARO49
Useful information. Thank you. Report
I learned my lesson years ago. Had spent hours updating a spreadsheet and was talking on the phone and checking other things at the same time. Something distracted me and I closed the file after doing all that work. At that time there was no prompt about "do you want to save?" I didn't and lost all my work.

Hard lesson. Report
CECTARR
Thanks Report
Multitasking is planning and using time efficiently and effectively, not piling as many tasks on as possible so nothing gets done, that is a fail on the part of the planner. Sitting and watching my washer wash clothing or getting the dishwasher emptied while the clothing is being washed, I choose emptying the dishwasher. They both get done in a timely manner. There are wait time for almost every thing you do, if you can’t multitask then you can not prepare a meal so everything gets done at the same time. Life is full of multitasking just ask the mother preparing a meal with 3 kids underfoot, or driving with kids in the back. I have worked with people that can’t multitask and they are no fun to work with at all, someone that watches their BloodBank incubate, or watches a slide dry for 10 minutes is a liability to the patient. There are things that require your total attention, few people can talk on the phone and type responses and do both well, but knowing that allows you to plan your time more efficiently. Report
Good info Report
CACUJIN
I carry a completely different view on multi-tasking. It doesn't have to be about trying to put one's hands on to multiple task as the same time. Report
MARKSMOM3
I know I am guilty of multitasking. but sometimes I have to do it. Report
I am guilty of doing this and it does create problems. Many times I don't complete things because I am trying to do too many things at one time. This is a good reminder I need to slow down and finish what I started first. Report
A lot to think about however I'm very quilting of doing this Report
My multi-tasking does not happen when I'm driving, unless you consider listening to an audio book while driving as multi-tasking. Report
Thank You Report
SOME multi-tasking is more efficient and doesn't add to stress levels. Like loading and running the washer, then loading and running the dishwasher, then putting cleaner in the toilet bowl. All take time to work. Once that is done, you turn to a task that requires your full attention (making the bed, sorting through papers, paying bills, etc), or go for a walk, exercise, or meditate. You accomplish several things, though only one needs your actual attention. Report
In today's world I thing we are all guilty of multi-tasking Report
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About The Author

Ellen G. Goldman
Ellen G. Goldman
Ellen G. Goldman founded EllenG Coaching, LLC to help individuals struggling with health issues that can be impacted by positive lifestyle change, such as weight loss, stress management and work-life balance. As a national board-certified health and wellness coach and certified personal trainer, Ellen holds a B.S. and Masters in physical education and is certified by ACSM, AFAA and Wellcoaches Corporation. She is also the author of "Mastering the Inner Game of Weight Loss." and You can visit her at her website, Ellen G. Coaching, and pick up a copy of the "Busy Person's Guide to Healthy Eating on the Go."